The stuff of life

The stuff of life


calls for a global partnership to turn tackling the
world water crisis into a basis for
sustainable development

woman pouring water

Record world consumption has caused unprecedented, serious pollution of water, both fresh and salt, and over-exploited groundwater resources. Both the scarcity of water and its poor quality present a host of acute risks to humanity and the environment. They threaten health, social and economic well-being, food security and biodiversity - not to speak of economic development itself. And, besides all this, they exacerbate tensions and conflicts both within and between countries.

Managing water sustainably requires an integrated approach covering everything from freshwater rivers, streams, lakes and aquifers, to deltas, wetlands, coastal zones and the oceans. It can no longer be seen as a sectoral issue, for it cuts across a vast number of uses from irrigation and industry to domestic uses and fisheries. This will demand new skills, new institutional structures, and new planning methods and procedures.

Eliminating poverty

All possible attention must be focused on the role that water can have in eliminating poverty. Access to safe fresh water for households, farming and small-scale industrial activities improves living standards and can significantly increase opportunities for the poor to increase their incomes.

Water can also generate employment and sustainable livelihoods. Sixty per cent of the world's people directly depend on the coastal and ocean environment as a source of income from such activities as fishing, shipping and tourism: livelihoods will be promoted if these are managed properly. Rationally allocating water - which is so important in agriculture and many other trades - will help provide opportunities for productive employment. Jobs can also be created in constructing, operating and maintaining the water distribution infrastructure.

Women and young girls in the rural areas of developing countries spend as many as five hours a day fetching water from distant sources, several studies show. Bringing water closer to their homes would free time for them to generate more income. It would also have tremendous benefits for health.

Urbanization presents an immediate challenge for managing water, just as it does for energy and waste. The growth in urban populations predicted for the coming two decades will bring an unparalleled demand for new infrastructure. By the end of this century, some 22 cities worldwide will have 10 million or more inhabitants: 18 of these will be in the developing world. There is already a large unmet demand for household water, and serving these dense population centres will often require more water, capital, and energy than is available or affordable.

Integrating management

Understanding is growing that providing water supply and sanitation services is no longer merely an engineering discipline, but has to combine technological development, design and construction with integrated water resources management. It is also now understood that managing demand - including pricing water properly - is a surer path to providing water security than focusing mainly on supply, as in the past. The way in which water is subsidized in most developing countries mainly benefits the rich and the middle-class, not the poor.

Water management has to be closely integrated with land management if other critical problems are to be tackled. These include the degeneration of ecosystems regulated by groundwater and surface water regimes and the irreversible degradation of aquifer systems, which reduces the fertility of the soil and leads to a serious decline in water's availability, quality and accessibility.

Meanwhile, discharging industrial and urban waste waters into the sea, poor land-use practices, transporting hazardous substances and over-exploiting marine resources all threaten food security, fisheries and tourism.

Water and sustainable human development are therefore inextricably linked. Unless there are adequate supplies of water, and unless they are soundly managed, socio-economic development simply cannot take place. Indeed, there is a strong case that water is at the heart of some of the most important tasks now facing development.

First, the Earth's poorest billion people must have access to adequate water and sanitation services. Second, the trend toward degradation of the planet's finite freshwater and marine water resources must be reversed. And, third, processes and policies for sustainable use, management and conservation must be implemented to protect freshwater, marine and coastal systems for succeeding generations.

Many efforts are under way to strengthen national capacities so as to manage water resources in a sustainable, integrated way. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has supported programmes and projects related to water resources development, use and management for over 30 years, spending over $1 billion and raising substantial additional funding.

It has identified the following areas for capacity development support:

- Fostering institutional innovations which help promote sustainable water resources management, and are consistent with it.

- Training and the professional development of staff in demand management methods and planning.

- Increasing local capabilities to gather and disseminate information and the capacity to analyse questions of sustainable resource management.

- Assisting in the development of national policy frameworks.

- Supporting the adoption of integrated management approaches to rivers, lake basins and coastal zones.

Water and waste management are of urgent concern to development agencies committed to sustainable development. International funding may provide only about 10 per cent of all water-related investments - the vast majority are covered by national and community-level human and financial resources - but it is still vitally important. However, in the past, the efforts of multilateral and bilateral agencies have been scattered - and most projects have taken a narrow approach, treating water very much as a sector issue.

Global Water Partnership

In early August, the Global Water Partnership (GWP) was officially launched in connection with the Stockholm Water Symposium to overcome these shortcomings and to promote a more integrated approach to water management. Originally an initiative of the World Bank, UNDP and SIDA (Swedish International Development Authority), the Partnership is open to both international and national institutions engaged in water issues in the South. We have already solicited significant support and are very optimistic about the future.

The GWP's main objective is to help countries build their abilities to plan and manage their water resources successfully and to protect their aquatic environments. In doing this, we hope to make a substantial contribution to turning the idea of sustainable human development into a reality for tens, perhaps, hundreds of millions of people.

Anders Wijkman - a former Swedish member of parliament and a member of the Club of Rome - is Assistant Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and Director of UNDP's Bureau for Policy and Programme Support.

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